The first stop on the East African leg of my RTW trip was Kenya. Although I had already visited the southern African countries of Botswana, Zimbabwe, and South Africa, I was really looking forward to witnessing the Great Migration in Kenya and Tanzania. The Great Migration is an annual migration of millions of wildebeest and zebra, who travel between the Serengeti in Tanzania and the Maasai Mara in Kenya in constant search of fresh grazing ground. During the migration, predators like lions, leopards, and cheetahs and always on the lookout for their next prey. That’s one of the reasons why zebras and wildebeest frequently migrate together; by increasing their numbers, they reduce the chance of any single individual being eaten.
After a short stopover in Nairobi, I traveled by 4×4 to the Maasai Mara National Reserve, which is one of the best parks in Africa for wildlife viewing. Unfortunately, getting there was not so enjoyable, as it is a very long drive and the road conditions are quite bumpy (to put it mildly). I lost count of the number of times that my head almost hit the roof of the truck! If you’re a passenger traveling between Nairobi and the Maasai Mara, just be warned that you probably won’t get any sleep for most of the journey. The one highlight of the trip was getting to see the Great Rift Valley, which is a huge natural depression that runs from Lebanon in the north all the way to Mozambique in the south, and is caused by the opposing motions of two tectonic plates.
Once we arrived at the Maasai Mara National Reserve, things quickly took a turn for the better. On our very first game drive, we got to see thousands of wildebeest, as during the time of year that we visited (August), most of the migration takes place in this reserve. Aside from wildebeest, we spotted a myriad of other beautiful animals, including giraffes, warthogs, baboons, zebras, gazelle, impala, and cape buffalo. We also spotted a couple of cheetah on our first drive which was quite lucky, as they can be very elusive.
On the second day in the Masaai Mara, we headed out to the Mara River to watch the wildebeest and zebras cross the river back into Tanzania and the Serengeti National Park. When we arrived, we saw a huge line of animals waiting to cross the river. However, the ones in front were quite reluctant to enter, as the waters are known to be crocodile-infested, and they obviously didn’t want to end up as dinner. I’d heard that it’s quite a spectacle to see the wildebeest frantically swimming across in an attempt to make it to the other side without being eaten. However, on this day their courage seemed to have left them and they weren’t taking the plunge. So instead, we headed to a nearby swimming hole to check out some hippos frolicking in the water and fighting with one another (as hippos often do).
On the way back to camp, I was able to witness two things for the first time: the first was a hyena, which are very elusive. I had attempted to spot them during my visit to southern Africa without any luck; however, during my time in East Africa I was able to spot at least a dozen! The second was a pride of lions happily feasting on a wildebeest carcass! From the looks of it, this was a fresh kill, and couldn’t have been done more than one hour ago. Our driver was kind enough to drive off-road so we could get an up close and personal view of the lions enjoying their meal. Despite the fact that we were only a few feet away, they went on munching without taking any notice of our presence.
The third and final day at the Maasai Mara had more surprises in store for us. First, we were able to enjoy a close-up view of an endangered white rhino, which was peacefully grazing on grass. Second, we came across an family of giraffes, including an adorable baby giraffe (which was still quite large for being a baby!). But the highlight of the day had to be the family of lions sitting in a tree! I had seen plenty of lions on the ground before, but this was the first time I had seem them climbing a tree! I spotted a mother lion with two small cubs. The mother lion was looking out onto the savannah to make sure her babies were safe, while her babies were snoozing away, with only their backside and butts visible to us. It was definitely a unique and amazing experience.
After reluctantly departing the Maasai Mara, we headed toward our second destination in Kenya, which was the Lake Nakuru National Park. Lake Nakuru is famous for having an extensive flamingo population, and it did not disappoint. Shortly on entering this small park, were were treated to a display of literally thousands of flamingoes feasting on brine, along with several other colorful birds. I had already seen Latin American flamingoes during a previous visit to Chile and Bolivia, but the sheer number of flamingoes at Lake Nakuru was mind-blowing. As a quick side note, I’ve always enjoyed watching flamingoes walk, as it looks like their knees are bending backwards (even though that is actually their ankle). Another interesting moment happened when we observed a solitary lion sitting not far from a herd of grazing zebras. Normally zebras generally have their head down to graze on grass. However, when the lion entered the picture, they literally froze with all heads pointed in the lion’s direction to watch for his next move. The scene stayed like this for several minutes until the lion, as if conceding that he would not be able to outrun the zebras, finally trotting off into the bush and out of sight.
After spending the night inside the park, we headed south toward Amboseli National Park, which is right in the shadow of Mount Kilimanjaro, the tallest mountain in Africa and the highest free-standing mountain in the world. Although the top of the mountain is often shrouded in clouds, during our visit there we had many opportunities to get a clear view of the top, including the permanent (but ever-shrinking) glacier. Aside from being the closest park in Kenya to Mount Kilimanjaro, Amboseli is famous for being one of the best places in Africa for up close encounters with elephants. We definitely had our share of elephant encounters, including several mother elephants with their adorable babies following closely behind. While I’ve always loved baby animals, I think that baby elephants are among the cutest. There was another amusing scene where we saw an elephant grazing in a swamp, with his legs almost completely submerged and the water nearly up to his belly!
The week that I spent in Kenya was a fantastic and memorable introduction to the wildlife in East Africa. Still hungry for more, I crossed the border into Tanzania and headed for the world heritage Ngorongoro Conservation Area.